Wednesday 27 June 2018 09:17, UK
When England face Belgium on Thursday there will be a talented group of Premier League stars feeling the weight of expectation on their shoulders. But that team will not be England, writes Adam Bate.
When England face Belgium on Thursday it will be their opponents who boast within their squad the outstanding player for the Premier League champions. Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne inherited that title from Eden Hazard, Chelsea's player of the year in their triumph. England have Harry Kane but Belgium have more Premier League superstars.
Jordan Pickford is a talented goalkeeper but while he was being relegated with Sunderland last year, Thibaut Courtois was collecting a second Premier League winners' medal. Harry Maguire went down with Hull that year too and while he has since impressed at Leicester, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have both featured in PFA teams of the year.
Perhaps Gareth Southgate should not worry too much about the potential mismatches. If ever there was a nation who have had to learn the hard way that Premier League pedigree can count for little at major tournaments then it is surely England. Cohesion matters. Team spirit makes the difference. For supporters, there are so many painful examples.
At Euro 2016, England were infamously eliminated by an Iceland team captained by Aron Gunnarsson, a player who spent the following season in the Championship with Cardiff. Costa Rica skipper Bryan Ruiz did the same with Fulham but that did not stop his side topping a group in which England finished bottom at the 2014 World Cup.
Even England's Euro 2012 campaign was ended by an Alessandro Diamanti penalty in the shootout - a forward who attracted only a modicum of acclaim when scoring seven goals for West Ham in his solitary season in the Premier League. Ashley Young went on to win the title with Manchester United the following season but his penalty struck the crossbar.
This is a conundrum that Belgium have been wrestling with for some time. Marc Wilmots did not come close to finding the answers at Euro 2016 as his side were outfought and out-thought by a spirited and united Wales side in their quarter-final. Roberto Martinez is the man now tasked with ensuring Belgium are as good as the sum of their parts.
"I want to see us play as a team," said Martinez on the eve of the tournament. They did that effectively enough in World Cup qualifying, winning nine of their 10 games and scoring 43 goals - a tally that no team in Europe could better. Belgium have been just as emphatic in their work thus far in Russia. Only England can match their total of eight goals so far.
But both teams have shown that putting weaker teams away is one thing and finding a solution against stronger opposition is something quite different. Belgium hope to have grown since their quarter-final exit to Argentina four years ago but their results in preparation for this tournament suggest that this particular problem persists.
Only two of Belgium's last-16 fixtures have been against teams who are currently certain to be in the knockout stages of this World Cup - Russia and Portugal. They won neither game. The only other of those matches that they failed to win was against another side expected to be in the knockouts, Mexico, with whom they drew three-all in Brussels in November.
"We still put too much on our talents," said Kevin De Bruyne after that Mexico result. "It was a match in which we had very little possession and everyone in a system that doesn't really fit. As long as we don't have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. It's a pity that we have not yet found a solution."
Finding the right position for their star playmaker remains a concern as Martinez conjures with the question of how to set up his side to suit the strengths of both De Bruyne and Hazard. It is an all-too-familiar challenge for coaches of so-called golden generations - one that Southgate himself experienced as an England player in the early part of the century.
Perhaps little will be learned in Kaliningrad as both coaches rotate with progression to the knockout stages already assured. But while Belgium have the big names to call upon when the big games arrive, it might just be Southgate who is more confident of what he can expect from his players in the weeks ahead. For England, the roles are reversed now.
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